The impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on every industry, including the meetings and events industries. From months-long closures to altering the way leisure and hospitality business is conducted, COVID-19 has forever changed the way hotels, casinos and restaurants operate. As Atlantic City looks to reopen, it’s time to learn more about the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the area, as well as how casinos are upping their game and safely getting back to “business as usual.”
As Shelley Williams, vice president of sales at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, explains, all nine casinos in Atlantic City were ordered to close in March by state and local officials due to the enormous impact COVID-19 was having on this region in particular. “The difficulty is the widespread and long-lasting effects it has had on people, their families and our industry,” Williams says. “It has been a challenge to navigate the pandemic due to its length, but also try to understand how we will pivot and what is next. Frequent communication and involvement are key, both with teams and customers, whether that is via calls, text messages or Zoom. Checking in on their health and well-being has been a priority. Being present for them and responsive is valuable and rewarding. I personally feel how we cope with the pandemic is coming together with flexibility and understanding of the underlying issues, as it will ultimately foster a deeper relationship.”
While the Hard Rock Hotel property has been operationally closed, they have taken this time to deep clean the building and put new protocols in place that will responsibly provide guests with good clean fun when they return. “I am confident that no one could have imagined or predicted a lengthy closure, ultimately having an enormous impact on our industry, among many others globally,” Williams says. Over the course of the closure, the owners of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City have been keen on conserving the culture, leading by example, and living up to Hard Rock’s core mottoes.
Williams stresses that this is a historic moment for casino closures for Atlantic City and it has had widespread impact on the industry, particularly for so many dedicated men and women who help serve up the outstanding hospitality and entertainment for this destination. “Hard Rock Atlantic City keeps its core mottoes at the center of its business principles: All is One, Love All – Serve All, Save the Planet and Take time to be Kind,” Williams says. “The fact that the Seminole Tribe of Florida, along with Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International and CEO of Seminole Gaming, and partners Jack Morris, and Joe and Michael Jingoli, committed $1 million in ShopRite gift cards to team members during the closure, and extended health benefits through the month of June, truly shows they put the team and community first.”
For the coming weeks and months after reopening, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City will operate under new and thorough Safe + Sound program guidelines. According to Williams, the reopening plan has been developed in accordance with guidelines provided by Hard Rock International, and adopts the Atlantic City casino industry’s summary plan of proposed reopening protocols, in an effort to take a responsible and conservative approach in providing a safe, secure and fun environment.
“All of our guests and team members will be required to wear a mask while staying and playing at our property, and follow proper social distancing guidelines,” Williams says. The new protocols will also include thermal imaging technology that takes the temperature of both attendees and team members upon entry, along with a “Clean Team” made up of more than 100 team members focusing on cleaning and disinfecting surfaces throughout the complex, with special emphasis on high-touch surfaces and common areas. The team will focus especially on the deep cleaning of all gaming surfaces, chips, hotel rooms, restaurants, pool and public areas. The property will also have more than 200 hand sanitation stations.
“Our team members will receive general health and hygiene training on COVID-19 sanitization protocols followed by a comprehensive position-specific training of their new standard operating procedures,” Williams says. “They will also be required to complete a health questionnaire prior to returning to work and before entering the property daily.” Finally, Plexiglas will be installed in areas such as the front desk, cage, Wildcard Services, sportsbook, box office and select table games.
Following the CDC and state guidelines, Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City also has implemented an enhanced health and sanitization plan to complement the exceptional level of personalized service that meeting attendees have come to expect from the resort. “Communication and reassurance are key to gain meeting planners and attendees’ confidence,” says Peter Ciccone, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ocean Casino Resort. Like all businesses, due to COVID-19, Ocean Casino Resort has also experienced cancellations and a hesitancy with planning for future months. “We are working with planners to reschedule their meetings as opposed to cancelling with a financial penalty,” Ciccone says. “We are also being more relaxed with attrition clauses for 2020 and early 2021.”
According to Michael Massari, chief sales officer at Caesars Entertainment, which has four Atlantic City properties, “Partnership and collaboration also have become so much more important over the last 12 weeks. It has always been important, as it has always been on everyone’s list. But when you think about the people partnering today, we are talking to our contemporaries at other companies almost every day,” he says. “We are asking each other things like, ‘What are you doing? How are you doing it? How are you interpreting this governmental information?’ We are working so closely with our customers, our contemporaries and our competitors to understand how we navigate through this. It is really heartwarming.”
While the Caesar’s Atlantic City properties — which include Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City — are not currently open, officials are hoping to open soon under state and local guidelines. “We are opening at the height of the summer season. We will open up to people who are really looking forward to enjoying the experience,” Massari says. “We are working hard to make sure that we are doing all the right things in terms of the various government protocols that have been put in place.” Indeed, Caesars Entertainment has established a wealth of health and safety protocols. From hand sanitation stations to limiting the number of patrons at various table games, the Caesars team has covered all bases to ensure the utmost safety for patrons when they return. For meetings and events at Caesar’s Atlantic City locales, as well as other Caesar’s properties dotting the country, all meeting spaces, including convention centers, will adhere to strict guidelines as well as extensive employee training.
Impact on Meetings and Events
Atlantic City attracts regional meetings for the Northeast market due to the fact it is a short drive to many commercial centers, making this location desirable for event attendees. As Williams explains, Atlantic City also is a destination with rich history, and proper attractions and amenities for meetings and events. It is set on the world-famous Atlantic City Boardwalk with the ocean as a backdrop.
According to Massari, approximately 35% of the U.S. population can be found within the Northeast region of the U.S., many of whom can reach this New Jersey gem with a one-day car ride. “If you have a company or customers that are congregated in that area, Atlantic City is a great place for them to gather, and the facilities in Atlantic City allow that to happen. You’ve got large hotels and event complexes. So, you’ve got the people there and you’ve got the product to support it. And none of that is going to change. If anything, it is going to be even more of a destination for that region for people who want to stay closer to home over the next couple of years.”
According to Ciccone, due to the large amount of meeting space and guest rooms, Atlantic City soon will be able to capture meetings and groups that may require air travel. “New Jersey has been one of the strictest states in following CDC guidelines and putting procedures in place,” Ciccone says. “Ocean’s plans include social distancing meeting attendees and utilizing larger meeting rooms. For meal periods, all buffets will be served by Ocean’s culinary team to ensure standards are being met. Due to the increased focus on health and sanitization measures, Ocean has increased its cleaning staff.” Ocean Casino Resort offers more than 6.4 million sf of space. Built in 2012, the resort has state-of-the-art HVAC systems that continually utilize 100% fresh outside air. The resort’s floorplan offers spacious open areas, perfect for social distancing. Also, Ocean has 160,000 sf of flexible meeting space with indoor and outdoor venues. There are 24 separate meeting rooms, including the 77,000-sf Ovation Hall. This room can accommodate up to 4,200 people theater-style and is also ideal for a formal banquet or a classroom-style meeting.
Hard Rock Atlantic City is a newer property for the Northeast. Its music, vibe and upscale amenities offer a unique themed experience for attendees with 150,000 sf of meeting space and alternative venues, among many other features that surprise many organizations. “Casino resorts like ours have enough space and square footage to ensure social distancing and provide a more safe and sound experience. That is a true advantage to booking meetings at our property versus a small venue,” Williams says.
A variety of venues are available to amplify programs and are designed to accommodate groups of all sizes — from intimate board meetings to large-scale events and conferences. For the largest gatherings, Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena can stage a general session of 7,000 people or a trade show with more than 300 booths. What’s more, Hard Rock’s 29,000-sf Seminole Ballroom, divisible into six sections, can be configured to accommodate everything from spectacular banquets and corporate events to intimate private concerts. Hard Rock’s Flexibility Zero program for attrition or cancellation fees will apply to contracted room and F&B revenue on new meetings scheduled through June 30, 2021, until 90 days in advance of arrival.
As for meetings and conferences, there has been much discussion about the social distancing rules, food service, hybrid meetings, etc. Recovery for the meeting industry and for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City is about a transparent partnership, commitment to safety and flexibility, Williams says. Therefore, Hard Rock Atlantic City will respect and follow the capacities and the rules that are industry standards, as well as listen to clients to ensure that all questions or concerns are answered. “With that being said, we are committed to ensuring there is a level of comfort to pursuing the meeting through discussion, investigation and planning all aspects of every personal contact for the meeting,” Williams says. “From pre-arrival, security, set ups, audiovisual, check-in, food service, hospitality and recreation, and food and beverage service.”
Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City also is eager to welcome meeting and event attendees to the new Resorts Conference Center, which recently added 12,500 sf of state-of-the-art conference space in 12 new meeting rooms. In addition, the more than 64,000 sf of meeting and event space can accommodate gatherings large or small. Recently, Resorts Casino Hotel announced its “Play Safe, Work Safe” plan, which includes significant investments made by the company in the installation of advanced bipolar ionization and UV technology to purify air and clean surfaces throughout the property.
Looking Toward the Future
Massari and his team are working hard to continually monitor the protocol changes and procedures that will ensure that its Atlantic City properties are safe for all visitors. As Atlantic City, and other meeting and event locales, attempt to return to normal, what does that “new normal” look like for meeting and event professionals as well as attendees?
Williams is simply not certain if a new normal exists. “I hear the term discussed openly in many circles and I am cautious about its use,” Williams says. “Our businesses evolve over time, as they should. During this pandemic, we have all learned to take precautions to not contract a virus. My opinion is that safety is not a compromise. I believe that a new normal only exists when people feel safe enough to return to engage as a group.” As an industry and a company, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City is committed to taking a responsible and conservative approach that is necessary to create this “safe space”, and there will always be new advances in processes, procedures and policies. “When we return, it will be because we are safe,” Williams says. “I trust the steps we have taken to arrive where we are and the implementation of our new Safe + Sound protocols implemented will ensure safety is the main priority for our guests and team members.”
As such, it will be critical that casinos, hotels and resorts collaborate with meeting planners to work together, and follow the proper guidelines and protocols, to keep guests and visitors safe. “Any time there is a critical world event, specifically a pandemic or widespread disruption, it is a learning experience, and I believe face-to-face meetings will become even more valuable, with deeper content and purpose,” Williams says. “It will take time to engage, but intimate meetings are necessary in this industry, and I feel we can still safely have these.” She adds, “What we have been taught about engagement during this pandemic is that it will never replace the overwhelming feeling of the need to connect face-to-face. There is a deeper value and human satisfaction when communication, trust and agreement occur. The topic is debatable, yet the need to connect teams, engage and discuss live in-person is important for progress. Entities will progress, yet the rate at which they progress will be longer without face-to-face contact.”
As Ciccone says, the future experience of meetings and events will continue to evolve as social distancing measures are embraced by all.
“Everyone has been living in this COVID world for nearly three months now. We have become accustomed and we have adapted to a new sense of normal where masks and social distancing are commonplace in public spaces,” he says. “That will make it easier for attendees when they return to Ocean. Attendees have shared that they cannot wait to return.”
Massari adds that for meetings and events, the human desire to gather together is a gravitational pull that can’t be forsaken. “Whether it is a wedding, celebration, a meeting or event, watching a show, the human desire to be together is simply undeniable. People will figure out ways that we can gather together in ways that they are comfortable with and in ways that are safe,” he says. C&IT